Last week Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog made its television debut on the CW Network. As I did indeed sing along to Captain Hammer’s (Nathan Fillion) character defining song A Man’s Gotta Do, musing on just how much money I’d spent on Horrible merch since 2008 (A Hammer shirt, an iTunes purchase of the series and soundtrack, and the DVD – you do the math) I began to wonder about the point of airing a quintessential web series on conventional television. I’ve since come to the conclusion that televising the unrequited love story of Billy (Neil Patrick Harris) and Penny (Felica Day) was in fact Joss Whedon blowing a raspberry in the face of the establishment.
Well, it’s either a raspberry or a way to get his name back on television as a warm-up to his upcoming S.H.I.E.L.D TV show. But if that’s the case then this blog post sort of falls apart. So for the moment, let us assume Dr. Horrible + TV = a very quiet middle finger to a dying medium.
As a cultural phenomenon, Dr. Horrible is old news. Unless you’re very new to the internet and its distinct culture (cat videos, Wil Wheaton, vlogs, memes, XKCD comics, web series, et cetera) the chances are good you already know the Hammer is not Nathan Fillion’s fists. This reality likely produced two sorts of people watching Dr. Horrible on TV: those who knew what the hammer is, and everybody else who was learning for the first time.
To the second group, the message is obvious; this is what you’ve been missing by not watching internet television. For the vast majority who were watching Horrible because they love it/because it was there/because Joss Whedon is their nerd lord and sovereign the message was different. To this particular in crowd, the subtext was more along the lines of “look how awful the viewing experience is on conventional television.”
And wow was it painful.
The roughly thirty minute runtime of Dr. Horrible was stretched out to fill a one hour block. Though I expected commercials at the end of each of the series’ three acts, the mid-act commercial breaks were jarring and unnatural. Remember, this is a series written for the internet. In-act scene transitions do not lend themselves to the act break commercial structure that goes with 42 to 44 minutes of narrative television.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the CW treated the Doc just like they would any other piece of programming. Every couple of minutes there was a dancing “VD” for Vampire Dairies in the bottom right corner of the screen (notice me staying classy here and not going for the obvious joke about venereal disease). Sometimes the CW network watermark would get shot with an arrow as a promotion for Smallville redux Arrow. Where the internet empowers viewers with the option to close annoying crap like that, TV trapped me with its now flagrant in-program advertising.
But the worst crime was the CW’s decision to reformat Doctor Horrible out of 16:9 into a conventional 4:3 aspect ratio. I make a lot of concessions to the ancien regime of media when I turn on the television, but catering Dr. Horrible toward people who own old CRT tube sets crosses the line.
Everything about watching Dr. Horrible on TV made me long for the low budget honesty of the web series. A world where a viewer can watch something in whatever format they want, at whichever resolution their net connection can support, and where commercials may intro and extro a video, but they don’t interrupt the flow of the story. Nowhere was I more acutely aware that I was watching television than when I was watching something not meant for television. And through it all I could hear Whedon blowing his raspberry, not at me, but at the network itself. For he had insinuated something meant for one medium into another and in doing so proved just how unsuited conventional media is for assimilating new media into its pantheon.
Therefore, our take away from having Dr. Horrible on the CW should not be a thesis on Whedon as the king of transmedia. When we stop to think about the limitations of television’s fixed narrative structure, Doctor Horrible has no business being on the air. So kudos to Whedon for sneaking one past The Man. Bravo for showcasing how the main stream can embody the indie spirit; Dr. Horrible was a product of the 2007 writer’s strike. But nobody should presume Dr. Horrible’s TV debut is indicative of a two-way street between web media and television.